KAMNIK, Slovenia -- Most Americans don’t know much about Slovenia other than that it’s where Melania Trump is from. And most Slovenes, if they haven't lived abroad, don’t know how good they have it. The fact is that Slovenia, an independent democracy since 1991, has retained the best of its former socialist system, including how it takes care of its citizens (and foreign residents like me) from cradle to grave. Melania Trump has been away a long time, therefore missing out on her homeland’s impressive renaissance, but if she and her husband muscle their way into the White House, the tiny country on the sunny side of the Alps could attract a lot more interest. Here are some policies even the United States could learn from.
1. Maternity/paternity leave: American mothers, with 12 weeks of usually unpaid maternity leave, cannot believe how well their Slovene counterparts are treated. New mothers receive a whole year of paid parental leave and fathers get 90 days, the first 15 of which are paid. And if a couple has trouble conceiving, they’re on their own in most countries. They can opt for private assistance procedures, such as in vitro fertilization, but that can cost upwards of $15,000 per attempt. In Slovenia, IVF treatments are free. Up to six of them.
2. Continuing assistance for families: Slovenia is great for parents in other ways, too. In addition to the universal paid parental leave, the government gives qualifying families both a one-time payment for each birth (the amount is on a sliding scale, based on household income) plus an additional payment every month until the child turns 18. Some municipalities also give them an additional birth payment. Single mothers receive state-subsidized child care, and kindergartens are of extremely high quality and heavily subsidized for all. And for every day that a parent must stay home from work to care for a sick child, the government will reimburse the family for the missed time at work — at 80 percent of the parent's salary.
3. Government support for artists: Cultural workers (including musicians, painters and writers) can qualify to have their social security contributions fully covered by the government if their work is considered to be of high enough quality.
4. A non-draconian prison system: Nonviolent criminals can join an “open prison” system in which they return home on the weekends, serving time only on weekdays (the downside is that the weekends don't count toward their term). Prison culture is more like a strict boarding school than the sometimes-terrifying experience encountered in many U.S. prisons. Slovenia also has among the fewest people in prison per capita. While you might think that this “soft” correctional approach would fail to discourage crime, not so. Slovenia's crime rates -- including its murder rate -- are among the lowest in the world.
5. Help for college students: College tuition is state-subsidized and entirely free for students who are accepted on the basis of their good grades. If they are not accepted, they can still attend by paying a very low tuition — this even applies to foreigners (my doctoral studies at the University of Ljubljana cost me just a few thousand dollars a year). Then there's the amazing "študentski bon," a system under which the government subsidizes high school and college student meals at just about every restaurant. Special set-menu meals (with two or three courses plus water and fruit) wind up costing the student roughly two euros, about $2.25.
6. Bonuses for college grads and postgrads: There is an automatic minimum pay rate for each academic degree a student completes from bachelor's on, translating into a direct and legally protected benefit for those extra degrees enthusiastic students pursue but that don't necessarily result in any concrete benefit. If you lose a job in which your employer was covering your social security, the state will keep paying most of your income -- the percentage and duration vary -- to keep you afloat until you can find a new job.
These benefits are praised and exclaimed upon largely by foreigners. As Jure Ugovšek, a journalist at the Slovenian newspaper Finance notes: “Slovenes take these benefits as given. They think they should get more in return for their taxes.” But as a well-traveled foreigner living here, I can attest that Slovenes really do enjoy the good life — a package combining state benefits, a high quality of life at a reasonable cost, spectacular natural beauty, safety and cleanliness unmatched in few places, even in Europe.
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